Why drunks make the best poets, or should that be the other way around?

I have heard it said that page poets look down on pub poets, and I know that pub poets often return the favour. When it comes to pubs, pages, and poets, however, I have nothing against any of them. In fact, I’m a bit of a pub poet myself. And there are good reasons for having poetry at pubs, not the least for the way it introduces poets to ordinary people, and vice versa. It is true that these ordinary people may often be seen quickly exiting out the door they had just recently entered without knowing a poetry reading was taking place, but hey, it’s better than nothing*.

People tend to think of poets as cafe creatures, a compound of caffeine and nicotine and black skivvies and intense looks and maybe the occasional slice of sponge, but that’s not really true now, if it ever was. Even the Melbourne Poets Union played into this stereotype recently, when they called for an anthology of poems about coffee, wine and tea. (Did they forget entirely about long-running readings at the Dan O’Connell and Brunswick hotels?) But the association of poetry – and the rhetorical arts more broadly – with beer and wine is much older than their association with coffee and tea.

I often say that, if you can win over a room of drunks with your poetry, then you’re not doing too badly. That’s true, although alcohol can also have a way of taking wits away, first from the audience, then from the poet, so that the poet has to use up less of what little wit remains to impress their audience. The ancients appreciated alcohol alright; it’s well known that much of the philosophy of Socrates and Plato was cooked up at Athenian drinking parties.

Across the Mediterranean, the Persians – when they weren’t attempting imperial wars, that is – brought drinking into their politics in a big way:

It is also their general practice to deliberate upon affairs of weight when they are drunk; and then on the morrow, when they are sober, the decision to which they came the night before is put before them by the master of the house in which it was made; and if it is then approved of, they act on it; if not, they set it aside. Sometimes, however, they are sober at their first deliberation, but in this case they always reconsider the matter under the influence of wine.
Herodotus, The Histories

This laudable approach – to consider decisions once while sober, and once while drunk – commends itself to modern politicians, of whom the tipsy Churchill, the yard-glass skolling Hawke, and the whisky-tippling FDR stand out as sterling modern examples.

Speaking of politics, it is hardly any coincidence that many Melbourne pubs are named after politicians: the R J Hawke. The Curtin. There is even (oddly enough) a hotel with an apparent American political name (The Lincoln). The Dan O’Connell, too, is named after a politician, “The Emancipator” of 19th century Irish politics. You can see his picture on the wall of the pub.

Go into an Australian pub and you’ll find even the architecture of the place cosying you into poetry, debate, conjecture, inebriated arguments. There are tables and enclaves for small gatherings and conspirators huddled over their drinks. (Whenever I see a group in a pub I instinctively feel they are fomenting another rum rebellion, even if they are actually discussing what happened on Hot Seat last night). There are rooms for separate parties and large gatherings – in the bigger hotels, there are rooms on rooms on top of other rooms leading down to more rooms; Young and Jackson in the city is a good surviving example of this.

And even if you don’t find writers in pubs, they’ll find you – especially if you’re buying the next round. Lenny Lower wrote in The Criterion in Sydney; Henry Lawson and members of the Push met in other Sydney hotels; pubs and sly grog shops were our original latte set; before the kaffeklatsch was the bierklatsch. Melbourne developed its own poetry culture; Shelton Lea read at the Perseverance and the Dan; the prophetically-named Drunken Poet attracted readings, too; the first Passionate Tongues readings began at the Cornish Arms before moving to the Brunswick Hotel. Babble was at Bar Open before it (Babble) closed (the bar remains open)…

Which takes us to the present, with the 22nd year of consecutive readings at the Dan O’Connell Hotel just started, every Saturday from 9 January, 2 – 5 pm, and about time too, because after all that I need a drink.

(Hey, typing is hard work).

*Conversation actually heard outside the Brunswick Hotel one night. “It had better not be fucken poetry night.” Yes, it fucken was.

Photo by testore

Tim Train